But even writing their names that way — Lane Thomas and Victor Robles — indicates the current pecking order. Thomas, for now, is the Nationals’ everyday center fielder. Robles, by contrast, was demoted to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings on Aug. 31, once the club felt a reset would be not just useful but critical. And since, Thomas has mostly shined in Washington while Robles has found his footing.
In 19 games with the Nationals, Thomas has a .306 batting average, .397 on-base percentage and .528 slugging percentage (a .925 on-base-plus-slugging percentage). In 14 games with Rochester, Robles’s slash line is .298/.322/.596 (a .918 OPS).
Of course, Thomas is facing far tougher pitchers, making it impossible to compare these numbers. The small samples also make it impossible to draw meaningful conclusions. Yet the Nationals sent Robles down to relax and rediscover his swing in the final weeks of this season. At the very least, against Class AAA competition, he seems to have done that.
“He’s got a bright future here with us,” Manager Dave Martinez said after Robles was sent to Rochester. “I don’t want him to think about anything but going out there and playing. I want him to relax for a while, go down to Rochester, play every day, continue to work on the things that he was working on with [hitting coach Kevin] Long, and just go out and play baseball.
“I know this is not the last we’re going to see of Victor. But I want him to kind of take a load off his mind and not put so much pressure on himself.”
Robles is 24. Thomas recently turned 26. And as for timing, Thomas’s couldn’t be more perfect (even if it’s out of his control).
He arrived in late July, in the trade that shipped Jon Lester to the St. Louis Cardinals, while Robles was struggling for a second straight season. Since the beginning of 2020, Robles has a .606 OPS in 159 games, producing well below the expectations pinned on a former top prospect. His defense slipped last season before recovering in recent months. His base-running remains a question mark. The minors, then, provided a chance for a deep breath away from a burning spotlight. But it’s still important to recognize how Thomas pushed him there.
Where does that leave each of them? If Thomas stays on his current pace, he should have the inside track when the pair get to West Palm Beach, Fla., in February. Robles will have to translate a dash of success in Rochester to much better results in spring training, then carry that through Opening Day. He has three homers with the Red Wings, already passing his season total (two) in 369 major league plate appearances. The foundation for a comeback exists.
Even if he builds on it, though, Robles’s leash would be shorter than ever. Thomas’s is lengthening by the game. He has been perhaps the bright spot in the early stages of Washington’s rebuild. The only drawbacks have been a pair of base-running mistakes, similar to ones Robles made throughout the year. First, Thomas passed second base and returned to first without touching the bag again, leading to an out. Then he heard a foul tip while trying to steal second, stopping a few feet short of a bag he easily would have swiped. Because the catcher caught the tip, the play was still live.
“It’s kind of weird, honestly,” Martinez said earlier this month of those mistakes. “Because he’s played a lot, and he comes from a really good organization that really hones in on fundamentals and knowing the game. And when you talk to him, you realize he didn’t know he had to retouch the base. He thought once you touch it, you’re good. I was kind of shocked by it.”
Like Robles, then, Thomas remains a work in progress. The Nationals knew that when they traded for him. They almost certainly didn’t predict he would be starting already, especially because Thomas initially joined the Red Wings. But he was an immediate spark, giving them a window to make a drastic change in center and atop their stripped-down order.
The next step is deciding what sticks. Both Thomas and Robles will have a say.